Last night I was in the San Francisco International Airport, awaiting a flight back home. I witnessed something solemn and moving—a ceremony to honor a fallen Marine, whose body had been flown in on a commercial airline flight. A variety of people lined up at a window to watch as two fire trucks sprayed an arc of water over the top of the airplane as it taxied to the gate. We observed the flag-draped casket taken from the plane by a Marine Honor Guard and the family of the soldier gathered around each other and the casket. As we stood silently watching the ceremony, quiet and respectful, one woman stood by the window, also watching, but absorbed in a cell phone conversation. Her voice was the only sound in the area save the regular canned airport announcements that continued their unbroken cadence. As twenty or thirty people watched loss unfolding before them in silence, this woman continued her conversation, oblivious to the solemnity surrounding her.
Maybe I was more acutely aware of her intrusion because I had just come from Grace Cathedral, where I had walked their labyrinth and participated in a service of Evening Prayer before leaving for the airport. The experience of silence, reflection and worship was still fresh in me. What I recognized as I grieved with the soldier’s family and the larger human family that surrounded me at the window is that our efforts to multitask, our attempts to be more and more productive, rob us of our humanity. We, in our fast-paced Western society, don’t know how to stand still, shut up, take our phones out of our ears and acknowledge life and death going on right in front of us. We have become so robotic that we cannot pause to act like human beings.
At 9:00 p.m. San Francisco time, this same woman was sitting behind me at the gate talking business. I could tell she was returning from a convention, so Atlanta or somewhere in the southeast was home for her. Talking business at 9:00 p.m. is bad enough, but she was talking to someone 3 time zones later about the next day’s work.
St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” It seems to me that we strive to be less and less alive and instead choose to function more like robots, devoid of compassion, unaware or uncaring of the needs of others, and focused on productivity at all costs. Glory in our culture derives from greater productivity. But what glorifies God is when we are fully alive, attentive to all of life as it unfolds around us.